The pride that you take in yourselves is hardly to your credit. You must know how even a small amount of yeast is enough to leaven all the dough, so get rid of all the old yeast, and make yourselves into a completely new batch of bread, unleavened as you are meant to be. Christ, our passover, has been sacrificed; let us celebrate the feast, then, by getting rid of all the old yeast of evil and wickedness, having only the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.
1 Cor. 5: 6-8
In this passage from 1 Corinthians, Paul is speaking of the community in Corinth’s need to expel from their midst a member who is guilty of a very public scandal. What he says, however, is no less true of each of us as individuals.
Adrian van Kaam would often remind his students that “formation is sheer work.” Our lives consist of a tissue of dispositions by which we relate and respond to the world around us, to persons, situations, and events. These dispositions take shape both by what is given, in the genetic predispositions with which we are born (our innate temperament), and what we develop as a result of our very earliest life formation by and with significant others. What we usually refer to as “personality” is this tissue of dispositions by which we experience, respond, and react to the the world and to those around us. This takes shape very early, and this initial life formation largely persists through our entire lives.
This is precisely what makes formation such hard work. Both the dispositions that are faithful to the unique image of God that we are and those which are false and not in accord with that image are strongly embedded in our spontaneous and pre-reflective modes of presence and action. When we are living from and out of those dispositions which are in accord with our unique image of God, we experience peace and tranquility, a sense that who we are is in accord with reality, with the will of God. When we are living from the influence of our dissonant or false self, we experience fear and anxiety, a defensiveness born of the experience that our false modes of presence and acting are always threatened by the reality that is always impinging upon us in “the common, ordinary, unspectacular flow of everyday life.”
Pride is the defensiveness of our dispositional life as it is, including its false and anxious constituents. “The pride that you take in yourselves is hardly to your credit,” says Paul. The greater our fear, anxiety, and insecurity, the more powerful our pride and narcissism — and the more difficult the work of formation, reformation, and transformation. One measure of the false in us is our need to be seen in a given way and our compulsions to maintain that particular sense of our identity. What is most true and faithful in us cannot really be threatened. The blessedness of spiritual poverty lies in the fact that by clinging to nothing, we realize that we have everything we need. Whatever it is we are defensive about and clinging to is a reflection of the anxious and false form in us.
“Let us celebrate the feast, then, by getting rid of all the old yeast of evil and wickedness, having only the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.” The call here is to spend our lives working in the direction of “sincerity and truth.” To what are we most bound? What things, persons, attitudes feel most indispensable to us? The hard work of formation requires of us a willingness to let go of those things we most tightly grasp.
On the morning of August 18, 2016, a man called the C-Span program Washington Journal. The guest that morning was Heather McGhee, President of Demos Action. The man began by identifying himself and by acknowledging that he was prejudiced and fearful. He then most strikingly asked, “ What can I do to change, to be a better American?” This is a link to this very brief but powerful interchange: https://www.c-span.org/video/?c4618001/caller-admits-racism-gently-advised.
In his own description of his conversion, Theodore James Ryken speaks of being ‘put in my place.” We live our lives torn between standing in our own true place and affecting a role which has been constructed in great part by the social demands of others, our anxieties, and our fears. We must cease taking pride in “ourselves” so that God’s will and way, the truth, may be made ever more manifest in our dispositional lives. We must allow life to put us in our place and find that not humiliating but liberating.
St. Augustine familiarly said: “You have made us for yourself, O God, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” What is so touching about those words of the man who called the talk show, “What can I do to change?”, is that it is an articulation of the heart’s deepest longing for “sincerity and truth.” Yet, what is of pride in us resists the call of our hearts. It is very difficult for us, in a world which we often experience as harsh and threatening, to live in and from our deepest desires. It is striking to hear a person in public declare that he is afraid. Usually what we hear on talk radio is self-assertion, the pride and arrogance of the false form. To speak honestly and to ask for help is the very nature of prayer. At the moment we hear this person ask, “What can I do to change?”, we are aware that we are witnessing a moment of what van Kaam calls “form-openness.” This is the stance Jesus enjoins on us when he says: “Ask and you shall receive; seek and you shall find; knock and the door shall be opened to you.” (Luke 11:9) In asking, seeking, and knocking, our hearts are truly open to receive what God desires to give us. The hard work that is ours consists in letting go of that to which we desperately cling, and “standing ready” to receive the ways in which God desires to change and transform us.
Never forget that what gives a person worth is choosing the truth, and that in order to possess it one must seek it passionately. Truth only reveals itself to those who have the humility to learn and the patience to look for it. Learn to deserve it.
It is said in the Acts of the Apostles that they were only able to cure those who were pre-ordained to life. So do not long for truth for the sake of its novelty or the fame it brings, nor for the distraction or emotional satisfaction, but only for the revealing light which it sheds to help you in your work . . . you should love it in such a way that even if it brings no success around you, your soul will remain just as devoted to it and no whit less happy to possess it, for truth is the daughter of heaven and of eternity, and an incomparable companion for us.
Abbé de Tourville, Streams of Grace: A Selection of the Letters of the Abbé de Tourville, pp. 85-6.